Center of attention: McCutchen could be long remembered
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Quick: Think of the greatest outfielders in Pirates history.
Who came to mind• Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds, probably.
Good choices. That covers right field and left field. So who's in center?
"I don't know. I guess we'll find out," Andrew McCutchen said, smiling because he was quick to pick up on where this question was heading. "There have been some great ones here. We had (Andy) Van Slyke, (Omar) Moreno. Those are the main two I hear a lot of talk about, as far as guys from the past."
McCutchen paused and smiled again.
After just 420 games in the majors, it might be premature to put McCutchen, 25, in the same class as Bill Virdon and Matty Alou or Hall of Famers Lloyd Waner and Max Carey. But McCutchen has done nothing in his first 2 1/2 seasons to make anyone think he won't someday be among their company.
Just two seasons after finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, McCutchen last year earned his first All-Star berth. His production has been above average and consistent yet also shows signs of growth.
To quantify a player's value, sabermetricians use Wins Above Replacement Player, which compares a player's performance to that of a fictitious Triple-A player who would take his place if he were injured. Most veteran major league starters earn 3 to 5 WARP over the season.
As a rookie, McCutchen's WARP was 1.7, as computed by Baseball Prospectus. In 2010, his WARP was 3.1. Last season, when McCutchen's batting average dipped by 27 points but his home run total nearly doubled, his WARP grew to 5.2.
All signs point to that trend continuing as McCutchen moves into his prime of his career. Not coincidentally, that's the same stretch the Pirates locked up by signing McCutchen to a $51.5 million contract extension last week.
"It's a win-win," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're very confident that Andrew understands the commitment that's been made to him, and we understand the commitment he's made to us."
It probably won't take long before Pirates fans rate McCutchen the equal of Van Slyke, Moreno and other great center fielders in the franchise's 130-year history. While McCutchen would welcome that, deep in his heart he would love to be the next Ken Griffey Jr. -- one of the greatest center fielders of baseball's modern era.
"Griffey was the guy I watched, growing up as a kid," McCutchen said. "Some guys wanted to be like Mike. I definitely wanted to be like Griffey."
In 2006, before he was even in Double-A, McCutchen met Griffey for the first time. Rusty Kuntz, then a Pirates coach, introduced them during batting practice. Recalling the moment, McCutchen laughed and admitted he was star-struck.
Griffey's logo is on McCutchen's workout shirt and cleats. Two years ago, Griffey called McCutchen and asked if he would endorse his line of clothing and shoes produced by Nike.
"That was pretty neat," McCutchen said, shaking his head and laughing again. "He's a guy I watched growing up, and now I know him personally. It's crazy how things happen."
Images of Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen from 2012 spring training in Bradenton, Florida.
Strong up the middle
Strong up the middle
Several standout center fielders have played in Pittsburgh for the Pirates, Crawfords and Grays:
• Matty Alou: Led NL with .342 average in 1966
• James 'Cool Papa' Bell: Fastest man in Negro Leagues
• Max Carey: 10-time NL stolen-base leader
• Oscar Charleston: Player-manager of 1932 Crawfords
• Kiki Cuyler: 2nd in MVP voting in 1925
• Omar Moreno: 77 stolen bases in 1979
• Al Oliver: Seven-time All-Star
• Andy Van Slyke: Five straight Gold Gloves (1988-92)
• Bill Virdon: Led NL in triples and won Gold Glove in 1962
• Lloyd Waner: 'Little Poison' hit .319 over 17 years